I N THE OPENING scene of “Midwives”, Snow Hnin Ei Hlaing’s debut feature documentary, a young woman gives birth in a makeshift clinic in Myanmar. She is splayed out on a tarpaulin mat; an IV drip hangs from the bamboo roof. She groans as Hla, a midwife, examines her and Nyo Nyo, Hla’s apprentice, massages her abdomen. The camera lingers on the woman’s agonised expression and the baby’s face as it blinks into the light. Female onlookers start to chatter. Hla snaps: “I just told you bitches to shut up.”
The winner of the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award at Sundance Film Festival, “Midwives” follows Hla and Nyo Nyo across a five-year period as they provide basic health care in Rakhine. The state on Myanmar’s west coast is home to the Rohingya, an oppressed ethnic-minority group predominantly of Muslim faith. In the past decade attacks on the Rohingya have intensified. In 2012, after a series of riots between ethnic Rakhines and Rohingya, the army swept tens of thousands of people into camps. In 2017 a spate of ethnic cleansing led some 750,000 Rohingya to flee across the border into Bangladesh.
Demography is a political issue, and Hla’s and Nyo Nyo’s work is considered controversial by their compatriots. In 2013 the Burmese government imposed a two-child limit on Rohingya to “ease tensions”; local politicians claimed that, without such measures, the Buddhist population would be overwhelmed. (In 2014 Muslims accounted for 4% of Myanmar’s citizens.) Such propaganda, espoused by the army and Buddhist leaders, has stoked racial hatred.
What makes the women’s collaboration unusual is that they hail from different sides of the ethnic divide: Hla is Buddhist and Nyo Nyo is Rohingya. Ms Hlaing (who was born in Rakhine and whose aunt helped her find her characters) chronicles their different travails and the darkening mood in the country. When Rohingya children are banned from government schools, Nyo Nyo sets up an informal classroom; she fantasises about leaving her husband and children and starting a new life in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. Hla receives threats from other Buddhists and learns about people who have been attacked or killed for helping the Rohingya. When men harass her on the street and follow her with cameras, she is defiant: “Take your photos of me, but make me beautiful!”
Hla is the enigma at the centre of the film. It is never made clear why she risks her life to help the persecuted—she says only that they have nowhere else to go. She counts Nyo Nyo as a friend and celebrates Eid with her family. She tells them they should protest against the unfair treatment they receive at the hands of the government. At the same time, she frequently uses racist and derogatory language. “No matter how much I teach her she’ll always be just another kalar woman,” she says of Nyo Nyo. Spitting through betel leaf, she repeats the slur used to describe Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar. “They say kalars and cows are the same. She is one of them.” As she feeds Nyo Nyo’s baby a spoonful of medicine, she says: “Take this, you little bitch.” Moments later she returns to tenderly rubbing the baby’s back.
Ms Hlaing includes footage of clashes between Rohingya and the authorities and shows the increasing frequency of anti-Rohingya broadcasts on television. Police close the clinic. Hla starts selling fish to make ends meet; Nyo Nyo decides to set up her own medical service. To make it happen, she sells her jewellery and raises funds through a local savings-and-loan society. Hla initially considers this a betrayal, but soon changes her mind.
“Midwives” is a poignant study of how state-sponsored hatred permeates everyday life. Rather than being symbols of hope, the babies that Hla and Nyo Nyo deliver epitomise the vulnerability and uncertain future of the Rohingya population. “Why were we Muslims born in Rakhine state?” Nyo Nyo asks. She laments the restrictions that prevent them from seeking a better life elsewhere. “Where can we go? We can’t go this way, that way or any other way.”
The film’s final scenes were shot after the military coup of February 1st 2021. This rocked the rest of Myanmar but plunged conflict-ridden Rakhine into a sudden peace, says Ms Hlaing, as the army was sent to put down the protests against military rule that sprung up in Yangon and elsewhere. As the film shows, some demonstrators expressed support for ethnic minorities. The coup and its bloody aftermath roused empathy among the Buddhist majority—many of whom had for years either ignored or supported the persecution of the Rohingya—as they themselves experienced the army’s repressive methods. “When the coup happened the whole country became like the Rohingya,” the director says. She hopes a sense of solidarity, like Hla’s and Nyo Nyo’s friendship, may endure. ■
“Midwives” is playing in British cinemas and streaming via Dogwoof on demand now